Birhan is golden proof of the good we can do

Forget Madonna. Forget Sir Paul McCartney. Forget Robbie Williams (what do you mean you already did?). Forget even Pink Floyd.

The
golden moment for almost anybody watching the Live8 concert was the
appearance on stage of Birhan Woldu, the beautiful 24-year-old
agriculture student from Ethiopia whose skeletal three-year-old face
had stared out from the Wembley stadium screens two decades earlier.

For
the global audience watching that concert in 1985, the haunting image
of this unknown girl, apparently just moments from death, played a
significant part in persuading them to dig deep. Some of the money they
contributed, in turn, made its way back to the village where the young
girl was still clinging to life and helped pay for her education.

Even
the most jaded observer could set aside their cynicism to see that here
she was, a living, smiling proof of the good that can be done when the
right forces come together. And we can even, just for a moment, set
aside our own cynicism of the business we work in to acknowledge the
role that journalism played in all of this.

The original footage
of Birhan was taken by cameraman Philippe Billard from CBC news in
Canada, accompanied by reporter Brian Stewart. They in turn had gone to
Ethiopia following in the footsteps of Michael Buerk and Mohammed Amin,
whose shattering reports directly moved Bob Geldof to launch the Band
Aid and Live Aid projects.

Twenty years later, Sun journalist
Oliver Harvey was the latest to follow up on Birhan’s progress (Stewart
originally tracked her down in 1988 and Buerk visited her to make a
documentary early last year). In a flash of inspiration, he took her to
meet Geldof and Tony Blair at the Africa Commission Congress, and
suggested that the rock star might consider repeating the Band Aid
single.

A stunt? Of course. A neat bit of opportunism?

Undoubtedly.
But nevertheless, The Sun’s involvement in the story played a part in
refocusing the world’s attention on African issues. Harvey wasn’t the
only person in tears as he led her on to the Hyde Park stage. And as
Geldof finally acknowledged in this magazine two weeks ago, British
journalists – tabloid and broadsheet – have led the way in highlighting
the key issues in the run-up to this week’s G8 summit in Edinburgh. So
the next time you have to grin and bear some ill-considered rant about
the evils of journalism, think of Birhan Woldu. And remember the good
it can do.

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